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Naming Native Americans in North America

Generally, ethnic groups desire that others use the name they gave themselves. This preference has gained importance recently as a means of avoiding ethnic discrimination. The principle applies poorly to larger, multi-ethnic groups since different sub-groups often have incompatible preferences. English, like other natural languages, has traditionally ignored this principle, exerting its privilege to invent its own ethnic terms, such as German, Dutch, and Albanian, and disregarding the self-apellations and preferences of the subjects. Not surprisingly, English names for the pre-Columbian Americans are largely assigned by tradition, and are not always accepted by the peoples themselves.

Indian and American Indian
The terms Indian or American Indian were born of the misconception by Christopher Columbus that the Caribbean islands were the islands in Southeast Asia known to Europeans as the Indies. Despite Columbus's mistake, the name stuck, and for centuries the native people of the Americas were collectively called Indians.

Native American
The term Native American was introduced in the United States by anthropologists who considered Indian quaint, demeaning, or inaccurate. (See "political correctness" for a discussion of this approach to altering language.) However, a 1996 survey revealed that more "natives" in the United States still prefer American Indian to Native American.

Despite the preferences of American Indians, American teachers and academics (excepting many historians, who generally use the historical term) have persuaded most "white" Americans to use the term "Native Americans." Many Americans mistakenly believe Indians is offensive; Russell Means, the famous American Indian activist, is instead offended by the term Native Americans.

Opposition to Native American Naming
Some American Indians oppose the term Native American because, they argue, it serves to ease the conscience of "white America" with regard to past injustices done to American Indians by effectively eliminating "Indians" from the present. However, most American Indians in the United States are comfortable with Indian, American Indian, and Native American. Among American Indians, the preferred method of referring to an American Indian person as such is to use the tribal designation if known. "Wes Studi, the American actor, is Cherokee" is thus probably preferable to "Wes Studi, the American actor, is an Indian."

Some people argue that Native American is inappropriate because "native of" literally means "born in", so any person born in America is "native" to it. A more serious difficulty with this term is that several ethnic groups traditionally excluded from the American Indians were just as "native" to the Americas as them. These groups include the Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut peoples of the far north of the continent. Eskimos was once used for these groups, but this term is in disfavor because it is perceived by many of them as derogatory.

Native Canadians
In Canada the term First Nations is used to refer to Native Canadians, except for the Inuit and the Métis. The Canadian Indian Act however, which defines the rights of recognized First Nations, refers to them as Indians. In Alaska, the term Alaskan Native predominates, because of its legal use in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA) and because it includes the Eskimo peoples. In Latin America, the preferred expression is Indigenous Peoples (pueblos indígenas in Spanish, povos indígenas in Portuguese). However, Indians (indios, índios) is often used too, even by the natives themselves. Red Indian is a common British term, useful in differentiating this group from a distinct group of people referred to as East Indians, but considered offensive in North America, where it is rarely if ever used. In the French language, the term Amérindien has been coined, and the English term Amerindian (sometimes abbreviated Amerind) is sometimes used in the social sciences to refer collectively to all Native American peoples or cultures.

Asiatic Americans
Because the ancestors of the "Native" Americans are thought to have arrived from Asia, some people have proposed Asiatic Americans as being more historically accurate. This term is easily confused with Asian American, and it is considered offensive by many natives whose religious belief is that they have been in the Americas since the dawn of time. Furthermore, there is a strong tradition in archaeological and anthropological nomenclature to name peoples after the geographical location where they were first documented, rather than for their hypothetical region of origin.


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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